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Start of Rattler Season Puts Snakebite Specialists on Alert

More rain -- meaning more food for snakes -- plus urban sprawl could add up to busier emergency rooms.

May 16, 2005|Susannah Rosenblatt | Times Staff Writer

After accidentally squishing a Mojave rattlesnake under the tires of his dirt bike, Running Springs contractor Kevin Figueroa whacked off its head for a souvenir.

The decapitated serpent was not amused.

When Figueroa reached down to pluck up the head -- with 3 inches of body attached -- it wheeled around and chomped his left index finger.

"The stupid thing [was] still hanging on my finger; I flicked it off," said Figueroa, 21, who was camping near Barstow when he was bitten.

As the poison crawled slowly up his arm with a cold, tingling sensation, Figueroa wound up at Loma Linda University Medical Center's "Venom ER" under the care of Dr. Sean P. Bush, one of the nation's busiest and most experienced snakebite specialists.

For Bush, springtime in Southern California means snake season.

As the six species of rattlesnake indigenous to the Southland slither into the sun with the warmer weather, dozens of curious kids, unsuspecting gardeners, nature lovers and macho dudes will end up at the Loma Linda hospital with potentially debilitating, and on rare occasions deadly, snake bites.

Bush, 39, an emergency room physician at Loma Linda, specializes in the body's reaction to snake venom and knows his way around the familiar two-pronged puncture wound. The hospital has one of the busiest snakebite units in the nation, with as many as 50 patients a year.

And with the region's development encroaching into the deserts, mountains and foothills, clashes between man and serpent show no sign of slowing.

Bush, who owns a couple dozen snakes himself, has seen it all.

Like the guy whose pet southern Pacific rattlesnake bit him -- and hung on for 15 seconds. The Yucaipa man was left twitching uncontrollably and bleeding from his nose and gastrointestinal tract, the venom breaking down the tissue in its path.

Or the Lucerne Valley Jehovah's Witness who tried to toss a Mojave rattler out of a yard where kids were playing, and ended up turning blue, vomiting and unable to open his eyes after the snake nipped his index finger.

Because of his religious beliefs, the man refused to accept a transfusion, even when the snake's venom made his blood dangerously thin. He recovered after a five-day hospital stay.

Not all patients' symptoms are so dramatic. Sara McDaniel, 45, was clambering down rocks in Joshua Tree National Park on Wednesday when a rattlesnake struck her middle finger. McDaniel snapped a photo of her attacker before heading to a hospital in Twentynine Palms en route to Loma Linda.

"I felt a sting. I thought I touched a cactus," said McDaniel, looking slightly worried in her emergency room bed. Bush examined her left hand, swollen and bluish, as he marked the toxin's path up her arm with marking pen and administered a $912-per-vial snakebite antidote.

Bush has been fascinated by the creatures since he was 5, when his grandfather gave him a hognose snake as a pet.

"I just think they're the coolest animal on the planet," Bush said.

His coldblooded specialty even landed him a stint on Animal Planet, in a fast-paced reality series called "Venom ER." Apparently White House physicians are fans of the show and contacted Bush, wanting to know if there was a rattlesnake vaccine for the president's dogs running loose on the Crawford, Texas, ranch. He advised that there was one for dogs but not for humans.

Between 7,000 and 8,000 people are bitten by venomous snakes nationwide each year, said snakebite specialist Dr. Robert Norris, chief of emergency medicine at Stanford University Medical Center. Fewer than a dozen of those are fatal, Norris said.

The San Diego division of the California Poison Control System -- which includes Orange, San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino and Imperial counties -- has received 15 to 20 snakebite calls so far this season, director Lee Cantrell said. The office, which handles just a fraction of total snakebites in the area, reports at least 50 bites a year, Cantrell said.

In 2004, 23 people in Los Angeles County reported snakebites to state poison control, along with 17 people each in Orange and Riverside counties and 10 in San Bernardino County. There were 241 bites statewide logged at poison control last year, according to Stuart Heard, executive director of California Poison Control System at UC San Francisco's School of Pharmacy.

The Inland Empire and desert beyond are the epicenter of bite activity.

Subdivisions built on undeveloped tracts of land cause snakes to encounter people and pets living and playing in what had been snake habitats, especially in fast-growing communities such as Chino Hills, Temecula and Victorville.

"You can't have this kind of urban sprawl in a region without impacting the [native] species, and rattlesnakes are a key part of that," said herpetologist Rob Lovich, state coordinator for Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation.

The nature of snakebites has also changed.

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